When I first decided to start doing capsule reviews of movies I saw in theaters I had expected I’d mostly be using it to write short reviews of Hollywood schlock that I was only semi-interested in. But, as it turned out the first month of my use of the practice has been, I don’t want to call it a dumping ground, but it’s been the month that a lot of distributors have chosen to release foreign films from last year’s Cannes Film Festival that ended up not being a player in the Oscar race. Some of these movies probably did deserve longer reviews but I probably wouldn’t have seens as many if I was committed to write full reviews of all of them so it’s probably for the best.
Everybody Knows (3/3/2019)
Since he broke out in a big way with his phenomenal 2011 film A Seperation the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has been something of a titan in international cinema but I must say I’ve been starting to notice some diminishing returns from him. His follow-up to A Seperation, the French set The Past wasn’t as great as the film that made him famous but it was still really great. His next film, The Salesman, was not so great. It was still pretty good, but its rumination on revenge never quite connected. His latest film, a Spanish production called Everybody Knows did not look like it was going to reverse this trend given that it got a respectful but somehwat cool reception when it played on the festival circuit and despite having major European stars like Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz it didn’t make the cut for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. Seeing it now I do kind of get the reception: for whatever its merits it’s not an overly profound film and you do sort of expect something profound from a filmmaker like Farhadi. Still, if you keep your expectations in check Everybody Knows is a quality drama that’s worth a look. It focuses on a kidnapping in a Spanish town and a variety of tensions and family secrets that this turn of events brings to the surface. That sounds promising but Farhadi’s great asset as a filmmaker and screenwriter has always been the depths of the characters he creates and how real the tensions in their lives feel, but this works better when he’s looking at mundane situations like relationships and divorces than when he looks at movie-like crime narratives and the fact that he’s working with glamourous movie stars here kind of exacerbates the problem. I do worry that this movie is a bit of a victim of expectations get rid of them and you’re left with a pretty good drama that’s certainly better than the average Hollywood movie, but people are not wrong to award other better works of world cinema over it.
***1/2 out of five
Birds of Passage (3/11/2019)
Ciro Guerra’s 2016 film Embrace of the Serpent was an incredibly creative piece of work and while it wasn’t its director’s first film it certainly announced him as a filmmaker to watch and while his follow-up, Birds of Passage hasn’t been quite as excitedly received it is nonetheless a very impressive film. Once again Guerra (now working with a co-director named Cristina Gallego) has opted to focus in on the indigenous inhabitants of Columbia, but this time instead of looking at the Amazonian tribes he’s focused on the Wayuu people of the desert-like Northern region of the country. Specifically it looks at one sub-group of the tribe as one of their members increasingly lead them into involvement with drug trafficking in the 60s and 70s. In many ways the film gives its audience the familiar “decade-spanning crime family narrative” film pioneered by The Godfather but made rather unique by the fact that its main characters are indigenous people who are living out inherited customs while still living in a modern world. Visually the film isn’t quite as inventive as Embrace of the Serpent in that it’s in color and generally isn’t as trippy, but it has an interesting location and Guerra does still have an eye for striking images. If anything brings the film down it’s that it’s maybe trying to fit a few too many years into a relatively compact 125 minute runtime and eventually has to leap over a decade of development within this empire in a way that’s a little bit jarring. It’s become a bit of a cliché to suggest that a new movie could have benefited from being expanded to mini-series length, but that might have been true of this. Still, this is a very striking movie that deserves more attention than its gotten during its all too brief run in theaters.
**** out of Five
Christian Petzold is a German filmmaker who has become rather prominent this decade for making movies that look at the difficult recent history of his homeland in unique ways. His latest film, Transit, is no exception and may in fact be his most formally inventive look into the past yet. The film begins with a man in occupied Paris on the run from the Germans who eventually makes his way to Marseille, where he hopes to get the papers he needs to get on a boat to Mexico. So far it sounds like a fairly standard World War II narrative… except it isn’t actually a period piece. Though the conflict at the film’s center is clearly a mirror image of that war the film is set in a world that looks like the present day: the German occupiers, who are never called Nazis but basically are, wear modern riot gear instead of the uniforms you’d expect and modern cars fill the streets. In a sense what Petzold is doing is not like what theatrical toupes have been doing to Shakespeare plays for ages having them play out in modern dress or the dress of some other period of history not called for in the text and kind of just going with it when sword fights break out or when people talk about kings or ducats instead of presidents or dollars.
So why do this? Well I think it’s in part to establish a parallel between this story and the refugee crises happening in Europe and the United States (the use of Mexico as an escape destination is probably not a coincidence). The point is perhaps to say that it wasn’t too long ago that Europeans were also the ones trying to escape to foreign countries from conflicts. In essence it’s trying to say “there but for the grace of God goes I” to those who watching from a place of comfort as they hear about people from Syria or Mexico desperately trying to get asylum or passage to safer places. It’s a cool idea to be sure, but I must say I think there are flaws in the execution here. Once our protagonist makes it to Marseille the Nazis become much less of a presence and the threat that they pose becomes very theoretical. I can maybe see why Petzold might take that approach, it certain fits his restrained style, but I do think this story requires a constant sense of threat and that’s missing. Additionally, the basic machinations of what our protagonist is up to through much of the film could have simply been more compelling. He gets in the middle of something like two different love triangles and becomes kind of unclear who certain characters are. So what we’re left with is an A+ conceptual idea applied to what is otherwise something of a B- story.
***1/2 out of Five
Ash is Purest White (3/31/2019)
I generally view the cinema of mainland China as being rather compromised by political censorship and populist impulses, and yet the continued career of the Chinese arthouse auteur Jia Zhangke would seem to prove that impulse wrong. Zhangke is a filmmaker who acts as something of a social critic looking at the state of modern China with a sort of frustrated resignation. He perhaps manages to get around political censorship because the aspects of modern Chinese society he’s most critical of isn’t the communist party or even the state so much as its westernization and new found capitalistic decadence. He certainly doesn’t come to this through any love of the old Maoist ways but more as a sort of melancholy about how fast things are changing and how it’s chipping away at the culture. Or at least that’s what I tend to gleam from his movies as an outsider, though there is always a sinking suspicion watching them that there are some complex local references and political ideas that are a little hard to grasp coming from the other side of the world
His most recent movie is Ash is Purest White, a film set over the course of more than twenty years about a relationship between a woman named Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan), who live in the city of Datong. Bin is a mid-level local gangster and if anything Qiao is attracted to his “bad boy” status and they have a fairly firey relationship, but this comes crashing down when the two are attacked by some local thugs and Qiao fends them off by firing off some warning shots using Bin’s unregistered handgun. Qiao is arrested on the gun charge and being the ride or die chick that she is she refuses to testify that this was actually Bin’s gun and gets a five year prison sentence. We then more or less cut to five years later and Qiao needs to find Bin and figure out how the rest of her life is going to go.
That summery might give the impression that this is more of a gangster movie than it really is. The crime element is actually largely in the background and mostly serves as a catalyst for the character arcs. It’s also not really as much of a romance as that description might suggest; the complicated relationship between the two characters is at the film’s center but as usual Jia Zhangke has a bit of an icy touch about such matters. Like his last film, Mountains May Depart, this is set over the course of three different time periods (probably an expected structure for someone whose primary thematic interest is rapid societal change) but the shifts here are a bit less extreme and in some ways the film is a bit more mature. That said it does kind of have the same problem as that film: that it’s third act is kind of its weakest even if I kind of get what he was going for. It’s maybe a movie that works better when looked at in the context of the body of work than on its own but of the three Zhangke film’s I’ve seen it’s probably the least flawed and most accessible.
**** out of Five